Red Clocks Imagines America Without Abortion

A new novel by Leni Zumas is both a compelling speculative work and a deeply considered analysis of what it means to live in a woman’s body.

Demonstrators demanding a woman's right to choose march to the U.S. Capitol for a rally seeking repeal of all anti-abortion laws in Washington, D.C., Nov. 20, 1971 (AP)

The America in Leni Zumas’s new novel, Red Clocks, is so familiar as to be almost unremarkable. Ro, a history teacher, has a father in a retirement home in Florida and a brother who died of a heroin overdose. Susan, a mother, raises two children in the house she grew up in. Gin, a loner, is defiantly private but offers home remedies to local women with health issues but no money or insurance. Mattie, a teenager, loses her virginity to a confident and callous classmate who’s unconcerned with her comfort and doesn’t wear protection. The only tweak Zumas has made is that in the world of her book abortion has been criminalized in the U.S., an occurrence introduced so quietly and so plausibly that it isn’t even startling—just another calamity for women to add to the list.

Zumas switches fluently through the perspectives of each of these women in Red Clocks, which is set in the fictional small town of Newville, Oregon. Like an Elizabeth Strout novel, their personal stories and heartbreak layers into something more acute. But the speculative aspects of the book, combined with Zumas’s historical and sociological insights, inevitably bring to mind Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Zumas, like Atwood, has grounded her book in reality—in things that existing people have said and done. The difference is that The Handmaid’s Tale has to imagine a confluence of global pandemics, mass infertility, and constitutional crises to will Gilead into existence. In Red Clocks, women simply wake up one day to find that a president they didn’t vote for—a man with a history of extreme rhetoric and legislation on reproductive issues—has proposed a Personhood Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which a majority of states then vote to ratify.

Abortion, or the sudden illegality of it, is the novel’s grounding hypothesis, but it isn’t its primary focus. Zumas has written a work that’s preoccupied with what it means to live inside a woman’s body, and to exist in that body in a world that’s long viewed it with fear and unease. And to handle a biological imperative that seems sometimes incompatible with other ambitions. And to experience the myriad small humiliations and the pain of the body’s physical state. In the first scene, Ro is visiting a fertility specialist, described as “a room for women whose bodies are broken.” At 42, Ro is many things: a teacher, a daughter, a writer working on the biography of a 19th-century Faroese polar explorer called Eivør Mínervudottír. In the doctor’s office, though, she’s defined only by her failure to fulfill her “animal destiny,” and her “elderly pregravid” status as a patient. Ro tries repeatedly to understand why she wants so badly to be a mother, but it’s an impulse she can’t quantify, a desire she can’t rationalize.

In the world of Red Clocks, the same administration that’s criminalized abortion has also outlawed IVF, since fertilized eggs can’t give their consent to be moved from laboratory to uterus. It has also introduced new legislation called Every Child Needs Two, which requires that adoptive parents be married. As a single woman, Ro’s last chance to have a child is artificial insemination, requiring drugs that leave her dizzy and exhausted, and that her insurance doesn’t cover. On the flip side of her reality is Mattie, adopted herself, who’s pregnant at 15 and out of options. Terminating a pregnancy is now classified as conspiracy to commit murder, and Mattie has already seen her best friend, the daughter of a state representative, jailed after she tried to self-abort rather than jeopardize her mother’s career. In the abortion ban’s early days, Red Clocks explains, women were prosecuted particularly harshly to help the legislation take effect, and “girls as young as 13 were incarcerated for three to five years.”

The cleverness of Zumas’s narrative structure is that it allows readers to understand the characters both from their own perspective and as they exist in the minds of others. Their names are introduced late into their stories; until then, Zumas refers to them as “The Biographer” (Ro), “The Daughter” (Mattie), “The Mender” (Gin), and “The Wife” (Susan), in a nod to the singular categories women can be shoehorned into. Gin is revealed as a woman who loves to fix people and animals, a person with kind instincts who feels things deeply, not least of which is the impulse to isolate herself. It’s only when she’s seen by other characters that she becomes an outcast, a hermit whom the local fishermen suspect of witchcraft. Similarly, Susan and Ro judge each other’s lifestyles and choices, making presumptions that are soon challenged by the other’s narration.

What this all builds into is a thoughtful, complicated picture of womanhood—and a fierce argument for individual choice. The reality Zumas conceives is much like the reality of any society where abortion is outlawed: Deprived of options, women go to increasingly desperate and unsafe lengths to end their pregnancies. Teenagers fleeing to Canada face the “Pink Wall,” a diplomatic agreement that allows border police to detain and forcibly test any woman or girl whom they suspect to be seeking an abortion. Without access to comprehensive sexual education, Mattie and her friends share old wives’ tales and snippets of hearsay that invariably fail them. But something else happens, too. Women like Gin become de facto healthcare providers, offering remedies that Ro describes as being “thousands of years in the making, fine-tuned by women in the dark creases of history, helping each other.” Activist groups emerge with names like the “Polyphonte Collective,” which nod to the forbidding history of women being punished for their reproductive decisions.

That Red Clocks does all this while portraying the everyday existence of four such different characters in persuasive, gripping language is striking. Zumas isn’t an idealist—she’s fully aware of the ways in which women think about each other, and the conditioning that turns minor encounters into contests or conflicts. But she’s also steeped her book in history, which fills in the gaps between her characters. Gin is descended from Maria Hallett, an 18th-century woman abandoned by a pirate whose reclusiveness led to her being labeled as a witch. Ro is obsessed with uncovering the life story of Mínervudottír, whose biographical fragments precede each chapter, and who couldn’t stop striving for an extraordinary life, a life “in which survival was not assured.”

Zumas, an author and professor of creative writing at Portland State University, reportedly based some of the novel on her own experiences undergoing fertility treatment. In these chapters, Red Clocks is relentlessly interrogative but always humane. Ro asks herself over and over again why she wants to be a mother, and can only answer, Because I do. The desire, she deduces, must come from “some creaturely place, pre-civilized, some biological throb that floods her bloodways with the message Make more of yourself.” But even in her most desperate moments Ro never lets her desires supersede anyone else’s. The paradox of fertility, where teenagers procreate effortlessly against their wills and adult women with means find they’ve left it too late, is a bittersweet joke in Ro’s mind, but not one she’s willing to compromise other women’s choices for—her own difficulty conceiving doesn’t change her belief that every women should have autonomy over her own body.

With such a provocative premise, you might expect Red Clocks to be an activist novel, or a polemical one. But the political circumstances of the novel are sidelined to only the most essential moments of exposition, in snatches of memories about women’s marches (and a fleeting mention that PBS has lost its government funding and is forced to air commercials for control-top panty hose). Red Clocks instead is deeply, intentionally personal. Rather than trafficking in sweeping generalizations or one-size-fits-all dictates, it focuses on the uniqueness of all of its characters, who are nevertheless linked by the immutability of their  bodies. The familiarity of the book’s world, just a step removed from our own reality, is the most shocking thing about it.